Public Citizen | July 2007
Trade deficit in food safety: proposed NAFTA expansions replicate limits on US food safety policy that are contributing to unsafe food imports
Revelations of significant safety threats posed by imported foods have dramatically heightened public
awareness that current policies are failing to protect consumers from exposure to dangerous - and
potentially deadly - imported food and products. The recent discovery of tainted imports of pet food
ingredients that sickened or killed some 39,000 animals should be a wake-up call for all Americans. A
steadily increasing amount of food on U.S. dinner plates is imported. The massive growth in imports
and current trade rules that limit domestic safety standards on imported products and border inspection
are forcing U.S. consumers increasingly to rely on foreign governments to regulate the food and other
products they will bring into their homes.
As Congress steps up action to address the threat and Democratic presidential candidates prioritize new
food safety plans, proposed trade pacts now pending before Congress would replicate and lock in
limits on the U.S. government’s ability to ensure imported food safety. Included in proposed “Free
Trade Agreements” (FTAs) with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea are limits on what safety
standards the United States can require for imported foods and how much inspection is permitted. U.S.
laws that extend beyond the FTAs’ limits that have the effect of limiting access of imported food to the
U.S. market are subject to challenge as “illegal trade barriers” before foreign trade tribunals.
This report, which includes new analyses of seafood import safety problems from prospective FTA
countries Peru and Panama, presents the food import and safety trends that are fueling the import
Today nearly $65 billion in food goods are imported into the United States annually - nearly
double the value imported when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and
World Trade Organization (WTO) went into effect in the mid-1990s. Today, over 80 percent of
the seafood Americans eat is imported. In the NAFTA-WTO era from 1995 to 2005, seafood
imports increased 65 percent. Between 1995 and 2005, shrimp imports alone jumped 95 percent.
The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) projects that U.S. imports of Peruvian food
products will increase if the proposed Peru FTA is implemented. For certain categories of
food, such as beef, ITC models show that the increase could be substantial, once tariff cuts
are phased in. The ITC also notes that imports of goods could be expanded even more than their
models project, due to businesses significantly ramping up their production geared for the U.S.
market - an outcome consistent with the experience following implementation of past U.S. FTAs.
The ITC report on Colombia makes similar projections, while ITC reports on the Panama and
South Korea FTAs are not yet completed.
This report explains the rules incorporated into the proposed FTAs with Peru, Panama,
Colombia and South Korea that limit food safety standards and border inspection. The
agreements prioritize facilitating access for imports over consumer safety − requiring the United
States to rely on foreign regulatory structures and foreign safety inspectors to ensure that food
imports are safe. Unfortunately, data show that many foreign regulatory systems are simply not up
to the task. Passage of the pending FTAs would elevate, not lessen, the threat to the safety of the
U.S. food supply. The FTAs could have been an opportunity to create a new model for enhanced
food safety in trade. Instead, the agreements, if implemented as written, may well generate the next
spate of news reports about problems with food products from these countries.
Contrary to what consumers believe, the vast majority of imported foods that end up on the
dinner plates of U.S. consumers is unexamined and untested. Today, the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA), estimates that it will only conduct border inspections on .6 percent of
the food that it regulates (vegetables, fruit, seafood, grains, dairy and animal feed) at the
border in 2007 − down from an already disconcerting eight percent prior to NAFTA and
WTO. FDA data makes clear that Americans are three times more likely to be exposed to
dangerous pesticide residues on imported foods than on domestic foods. Even though FDA
inspectors have only examined a tiny fraction of imports in recent years, inspectors have caught
numerous dangerous substances in imports from Peru. The FDA has found illegal pesticide
residues on fruits and vegetables, the parasite cryptosporidium in salad vegetables and basil,
unknown and unapproved drugs and capsules (including filthy and unapproved shark cartilage
capsules and unapproved cats claw capsules), Listeria in avocadoes, and unsafe color additives in
chocolate bon bons and soft drinks. Similarly, they have caught dangerous products from Panama.
Only 11 percent of beef, pork and chicken imported so far in 2007 has been inspected at the
border by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
While over 80 percent of seafood eaten by Americans is now imported, in 2006, the FDA was
able to inspect only 1.93 percent of total seafood imports. The vast majority of these inspections
were visual. For 2006 only .16 percent of the 859,357 shipments of seafood were refused entry into
the United States. The estimated annual incidence of infection with Vibrio, a diarrheal disease
associated with seafood, increased 78 percent from 1996 to 2006, according to the Centers for
Disease Control (CDC). Vibrio is associated with eating oysters, which are imported increasingly
into the United States from South Korea, Colombia, Peru and other nations.
Of particular concern regarding the Peru, Panama and Colombia agreements is the
anticipated increase in seafood imports. Peru, Panama and Colombia are three of the world’s
top 20 exporters of shrimp to the U.S. market.1 New analysis of government data obtained by
Food & Water Watch under a Freedom of Information Act Request shows that FDA
inspectors have rejected seafood from Peru and Panama for numerous reasons including
filth, adulteration, misbranding and the presence of various dangerous food-borne
pathogens. Both Peru and Panama have major export fishing sectors. Peru’s marine and inland
capture fisheries production is the second highest in the world at 9.6 million tons in 2004 - second
only to China.2 Currently, the United States is the primary importer of all Panamanian seafood and
is one of the main importers from Peru.3 The FDA’s database has documented the discovery of
poisonous swordfish, Salmonella in shrimp, dangerous histamines in Mahi Mahi and just plain filth
in shipment upon shipment of dried, canned, frozen and fresh fish products from Peru. Similarly,
FDA inspectors have documented problems with Panamanian seafood exports to the United States
including Listeria in smoked salmon, Salmonella in shrimp and lobster tails, poisonous swordfish
and shark loin, and obvious filth in dried, fresh and frozen fish. The report contains startling charts
and graphs, including those that break down the reasons for rejection of Panamanian and Peruvian
seafood over the past nine years.
While currently the four prospective FTA countries’ governments have the ability to
challenge U.S. food standards in government-to-government WTO disputes, the proposed
FTAs would newly empower the over 10,000 food exporters currently registered from Peru,
Panama, Colombia and South Korea to pursue challenges directly against U.S. food safety
laws if they believe such laws undermine their FTA-granted foreign investor rights. This is
not a speculative threat. Already under NAFTA, Canadian cattle producers have used such foreign
investor private enforcement rights to demand $235 million in compensation from the U.S.
government over the U.S. temporary ban on Canadian beef imports when several Canadian cattle
were initially found to be infected with mad cow disease.
The pending FTAs establish new committees to speed up implementation of mechanisms to
facilitate trade rules, including “equivalence determinations,” that require the United States
to permit imports of meat and poultry products that do not meet U.S. safety standards. Once
so-called equivalence is achieved, products to be imported into a country must only meet the
standards of the exporting country - not those of the importing country. The Peru FTA specifically
provides for consultations on trade in chicken and the Peruvian government is already starting to
prepare for this chicken trade. Both agreements include dozens of tariff lines on cuts of beef that
will permanently drop to zero when the agreements are fully implemented.
While many consumer products, such as Thomas the Tank Engine toys, have mandatory
country-of-origin labeling, consumers are none the wiser regarding many food products
because the implementation of a federal law passed in 2002 requiring country-of-origin
labeling on beef, pork, lamb, fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood and peanuts has been
delayed time and time again by intense industry lobbying. Currently only prepackaged retail-
ready foods, and certain non-processed seafood sold in the United States are required to have
country-of-origin labeling. Hopefully, an agreement just forged by House Agriculture Committee
Chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) will lead to the imminent country-of-origin labeling (COOL) of
imported beef and other red meat. The prospects for labeling of other foods remain unclear.
Meanwhile, a newly released Consumer Reports study says an astounding 92 percent of U.S.
consumers support country-of-origin labeling.
The report concludes with tips for consumers on how to protect themselves from unsafe imported food. However, these recommendations cannot replace desperately needed reforms to U.S. trade and food
safety policies - including the specific recommendations in this report.
Download the full report (PDF): http://www.citizen.org/documents/FoodSafetyReportFINAL.pdf